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April 2, 2012

Sadler finds career rebirth in Nationwide move

"There is nothing more fun than coming to the race track knowing you have a chance to be competitive and run well."

RCR/HHP Photo RCR/HHP Photo

Author: Bill Kimm
             NASCAR.com

Ask any driver in the Nationwide garage if his or her goal is to run in the Cup Series and you will most likely get an emphatic yes. For Elliott Sadler, the answer to the question isn't quite that simple. Sadler had been in the Cup Series. He spent 12 years competing full time from 1999-2010 with some success, but more times than not, struggling to finish in the top 20.

"When I had to choose that path, some people say 'taking a step back,' " Sadler said. "It's racing on Saturday instead of Sunday, but as far as a person racing and being competitive I think it was a step forward for me."

It all started at the end of 2010 with a phone call from Kevin Harvick, owner of the now-disbanded Kevin Harvick Inc. Harvick needed a driver for his second Nationwide team, and Sadler's contract was coming to an end at Richard Petty Motorsports. It was nearly unheard of at the time -- give up your Cup career to run full time in the Nationwide Series, a series meant to develop young drivers. Sadler said the decision wasn't all that difficult.

"It was a decision on whether to be competitive and race for wins and race for a championship in the Nationwide [Series] or ride around in a Cup car," Sadler said. "I'm a racer. I'd done all that I wanted to do. I wanted to be on a team that was all on the same page and come here and compete and that's what the Nationwide Series gave me. The decision was not as hard as what people thought it might be.

"I didn't have the ego to say I had to be a Cup driver, I had to race on Sunday. My heart was answering the question on what I really believed in and I believe about being a competitive race car driver. That's what I love most about the sport when I first started, when I was racing South Boston Speedway every weekend, we had a chance to run up front every weekend. That's what racing is all about to Elliott Sadler."

And now that decision has led to rejuvenation for Sadler. In his first season with KHI in 2011, Sadler was in the thick of the championship race, ultimately finishing second to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Harvick shifted his team to the ownership of Richard Childress before the 2012 season and Sadler has taken off.

Sadler is the points leader thanks to four consecutive top-fives with third-place runs at Daytona and Las Vegas and wins at Phoenix and Bristol. It's a start that even Sadler admits he wasn't expecting, but sure is happy to be a part of.

"I think we were anticipating and probably wanting some sort of fast start -- get some top-fives, get some top-10s, get the ball rolling," Sadler said. "Some of the early tracks are good tracks for us. We always run good at Vegas, we always run good at Bristol, California, Texas. So we were thinking we could get off to a good start. Did we think we were going to win two of the first four? No. Did we prepare and put the effort in for those races, of course. But we are definitely off to a fast start. My team is doing a hell of a job and we are having a lot of fun right now."

That fun comes from visits to Victory Lane, something that is a change of pace for the 15-year veteran. Wins haven't come easy for Sadler, so he appreciates what his No. 2 team is able to accomplish week in and week out.

"We race to win; this is what racing is all about. It seemed like forever ago the Pocono Truck win [in 2010]. Seemed like forever since I won the Cup race at California [in 2004]. It was tough times," Sadler said. "I was in a tough situation. It was hard racing each and every week, it was hard to battle. To be in the situation I'm in now and able to take advantage of it is just a load off my shoulders. It's definitely a lot of fun.

"I think I points raced too much last year. I think I was being too careful, not taking enough chances, worried about pit strategy, doing all these things not to lose the almighty point. I think this year, it is like what Richard Childress said, 'Winning is fun. Let's win some damn races and we'll worry about what happens with the championship later.' "

Sadler may not be thinking about the championship, but even he admitted winning one would "mean the world to me and my family." But points aren't important to Sadler right now. Homestead is a long way away, and Sadler is focused on one thing -- his first Nationwide victory at Auto Club Speedway.

"Honestly we have the approach now of whatever we can do this weekend. Right now we are focused on California, the next race is Texas. Let's go try to win these races and not worry about what is coming down the road in October and November. I have a lot different attitude this year compared to what I tried to do last year to win a championship and so far it's working."

But is a Nationwide championship enough for someone who spent so many years chasing the Cup title? When you've competed at NASCAR's top level for more than a decade, isn't a Nationwide championship more like a runner-up trophy?

Not even close for Sadler, who said all you had to do was look at the talent racing on Saturdays each week to realize just how competitive the series is. The goal of nearly every Nationwide driver is to make it in the Cup Series, and even though he's been there before, Sadler would like to race on Sundays again -- but the 37-year-old is no hurry to get there.

"It's going to have to be the right one," Sadler said. "I've done all I wanted to do in the Cup Series with an owner or a team that's not worried about racing. I'm with a great owner now and a great team in the Nationwide Series. We are having a ball and we are focused on what we're doing week in and week out.

"If a great opportunity presents itself to be with a competitive team and a good owner and stuff in the Cup Series then definitely we'll look at that. Right now, Richard [Childress] is treating me great. He's treating me like I'm part of the family, part of the RCR family and it's working out. We are having a lot of fun being successful right now.

"There is nothing more fun than coming to the race track knowing you have a chance to be competitive and run well."

To read the story as it appears on NASCAR.com, please click here.

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